Winning Write-A-Thon Entries 2024: First Place

“Last Light” by Joy Xie
Winning Write-A-Thon Entries 2024: First Place

The last rays of blinding light disappeared. The Sun, reduced to a glowing border around the irregular surface of Phobos. 

 

A fitting metaphor. 

 

Astronaut Mark Wagner sat gazing out of the viewport of the Mars habitation. He should be happy. He should be in awe. A Mars eclipse. A once-in-a-lifetime celestial occurrence on a totally different planet. He would be the first to witness such a rare event. But the waning light only fueled Wagner’s lingering emptiness.

 

Unwittingly, Wagner’s mind drifted to his family—

 

“Will you ever come back?” Halley, only five at the time, looked up to him, moonlight glinting off the tears in her eyes. Wagner couldn’t help but smile as he brushed her curly blond bangs out of her eyes. “Two years, Hal. I’ll be home in no time. If you ever miss me, look up at the night sky—in fact, see that bright reddish star?”  He pointed at the wandering planet.  “That’s called Mars. I’ll be there. Anytime you need me, just wave.” 

“Dinner’s ready!” The sound of his wife’s voice carried outside. Halley sprang up, with Wagner following close behind, each jostling the other to reach the kitchen table first. 

 

Even after seven years, Halley’s laughs that day still rang clear as a bird’s song through Wagner’s memories. His youngest daughter would have celebrated her twelfth birthday two months ago—childhood passed, without a father to spend the days laughing at cartoons. She would have graduated elementary school two weeks ago—the innocent years of her life, gone, without a father to spend the nights stargazing. 

 

If.

 

If she was she was still alive. 

 

Wagner remembered fragments of the last message he received from NASA like a stake driven deep into his heart. 

 

Soviet Alliance launched warheads. Thermonuclear war. Mission prolonged indefinitely. Earth is not safe. We’re sorry. 

 

Three years, nine months, and sixteen days have passed since the moment his heart dropped. No news from Earth. Wagner had enough provisions to keep himself alive for decades—acres of sustainable farmland, thousands of pounds of freeze dried provisions, a water hydrolyzer, trees to filter his air… he could live out the rest of his days on this dusty planet. 

 

But every day, Wagner looked up to Earth—that tiny blue marble suspended in his memories. With his high-resolution telescope, he could gaze upon the fragile planet. Now, the city lights had all blinked out. In the first few months, bursts of light periodically dotted the landscape. He couldn’t hear the sounds of these explosions, but he could imagine them. Where was his family now? By all probability, they were dead. What were their last moments like? Had they been peacefully sleeping when the bombs fell and incinerated their bodies? Or had they hung on through months of suffering, feeling every tremor as the radiation ravaged their bodies? 

 

Now, everything was still. Earth was an inert mote of dust, drifting along its preordained orbit, ignorant of the agony of its inhabitants. 

 

Wagner wondered how they would be remembered. Would alien anthropologists find the remains of the millenia old civilization and see mankind as the ever inquisitive pioneers of science, the bold explorers of space that Wagner knew it to be? Would memories of the shared global triumph of landing a man on Mars outweigh those last convulsions of fear and anarchy? 

 

Or will the rash decision of global leaders and the thermonuclear war that followed eclipse mankind’s accomplishments? Would mankind let its death throes define its legacy—the villain of its own story? Would its Phobos forever blot out its Sun?

 

Watching the moon—named after the Greek god of fear—slowly cast a shadow across the once bright landscape, Wagner knew that he was the last bastion of humankind. But perhaps—perhaps there was hope. Just as stray shafts of light still reached out from Phobos’ rough exterior, maybe the possibility of a future for mankind, a future for his daughter, still remains. 

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